What is the future of books?

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At a recent conference, I talked about what books might look like in the near future, with the focus on mobile devices such as the iPad. I ended by asserting that it is a very exciting time to be an aspiring book author, with one’s hands on (what matters), the content. Ways of expressing that content are currently undergoing an explosion of new metaphors, and we might even expect some of them to succeed! But content is king, as they say.

Here I list only some innovative solutions which have emerged in the last year or so, but which also raise important issues which we ignore at our peril.

  1. TouchPress were one of the first publishers to get off the mark with their living books. Their first offering was The Elements, deriving from an earlier interactive display of the periodic table (an example of which can be seen in the entrance to the chemistry building at Imperial College). It is a programmed book, in the sense that the content is expressed using code written by the publisher (very much in the manner of interactive games).
  2. Next to appear were Inkling, who describe their offering as interactive. Their approach is described in a blog written by their founder, Matt Macinnis. There he talks about The Art of Content Engineering, which again makes it sound as if authoring a book is in effect programming it! (I know what he means; if you follow the link to the talk I allude to above, you may spot that it too is, at least in part, programmed, and not simply written). Inkling also promote the book as part of a social network, with readers able to annotate the content, and share that annotation with others.
  3. The latest company to change the way books are both read and authored is Pushpoppress, the heart of which is also an interactive app.
  4. Then there is the epub3 format. This is a free and open standard for e-books. This third revision in particular is meant to enhance interactivity.

Something of a common theme so far. Books are going to be interactive! But what about these issues?

  1. Each of the first three (commercial) publishers above has adopted their own programming format. Although HTML5 may be at the heart of some of this, programming may also mean control (in the sense that the creative industries must put control of their content at the heart of what they do). Each of the first three above sound like a closed system, and extracting re-usable content is, I argue, an essential part of doing science. I am just a tad worried that the approaches exemplified above may not allow this to happen.
  2. Suppose you manage to acquire a chemistry textbook in any of the four approaches listed above. Will they inter-operate, in the sense of being able to extract data from one and perhaps inject it into another? Or will each be a data- or information silo, rigidly controlled by the creative content generator (whoever that is)?
  3. What might an aspiring author, intent on creating interactive content do? Should they go closed/proprietary or open? They will clearly need to retrain themselves. We have indeed come a long way along the road: hand-written manuscript → typed manuscript → word-processed manuscript → interactive app! Like computer games, is the day of the single-authored book rapidly fading, to be replaced by a large team, each with their own tasks to perform?

I end with this question. Is the era of books, just like the Web itself, going to be the app? And who will be able to (find the time) to participate?

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8 Responses to “
What is the future of books?

  1. Jan Jensen says:

    Your 3rd question is also something I have been asking myself, because I do think interactive e-books are the future. As I see it there are 2 options right now:

    One option is contacting one of the publishers you list and try to convince them to publish your book, and work with them on creating interactivity. I don’t think this will work in the foreseeable future because there are so few publishers, and they will obviously focus on bestselling textbooks. This will change at some point in the future when the market becomes more crowded, but when it does, I seriously doubt these publishers will be interested in sharing content or interoperability with other books, except, perhaps other books from the same publisher.

    The other option is self-publishing, which is becoming increasingly popular for fiction. Here the epub format seems the best solution, because there are epub editors available. As you mention, epub3 should allow for interactivity and will be released this month. But I am not sure how long it will take for editors and e-readers to adapt to this format. It could be years.

    The best compromise I could find currently, is to write something in epub format, and then link to web pages that contain the interactive elements. This offers no real advantage over a pdf document, but hopefully, the interactive web content can be incorporated into the epub document as epub3 matures: format, editors, e-readers, and all.

  2. Henry Rzepa says:

    In reply to Jan,

    Firstly, I should say I had an interesting chat with someone from one of the companies I mention in my post. There is little doubt that production of a major textbook in one of these formats is a major undertaking, rather akin to a modern game title, or perhaps even a Hollywood movie. Its done by a big team, and takes months. So yes, these publishers are NOT going to be interested in anything that is highly specialized (and academic chemistry as a whole counts as specialized!).

    So, self-publishing. There is obviously a continuum between interactive web pages (nowadays veering towards HTML5 like content, using e.g. ChemDoodle to express chemistry) and a packaged self-consistent bundle such as epub3. Both Jan and I appear to be doing this already; I have converted all my current lecture courses in the manner Jan suggests, but I rather fancy that preparing them for epub3 will be a major undertaking! The difference in authoring say a lecture course in PowerPoint (which all my colleagues currently do) and in a form ready for epub3 is very substantial! A major learning curve, in fact, if one is to do it all oneself.

    So, a bifurcation, between a content engineered production, in which the author (like possibly a script writer in a movie) plays a minor role, and a self-published effort where the steep learning curve may proclude the kind of quality one might expect from the former. Is either best described as a book any more?

  3. Jan Jensen says:

    Sometime I wonder if one shouldn’t really skip the whole epub3 business and go straight to html5 web-publishing, i.e. simply assume internet access. Many of the cool things in inkling such as sharing notes and highlights already assume internet access, as does Touch Press’ use of Wolfram Alpha. Combine this with the cross-platform issue as more tablets come on the market.

    Then the main practical problem becomes gaining expertise in html5 and javascript. I agree with you that, currently, this is best tackled by a team until appropriate templates and other tools become available.

    There are some downsides, such as how to take notes and highlight sections, but perhaps something like Pushnote could be adapted?

    Be it web- and e-publishing, the question is how to gather such teams?

    The teams would resemble open source teams, such as Avogadro. However, in the case of web-publishing, the product would be common html and css templates, to be used by different authors for different subjects. These templates could be made to emulate the designs dreamt up by “professional” teams such as inkling.

  4. Henry Rzepa says:

    Yes, teams sound like an excellent suggestion, perhaps emulating the team that has built e.g. Jmol. Of course a team of authors pooling their efforts to produce interactive e-books sounds very much like the various chemistry-related projects in Wikipedia! But Wikipedia (probably for good reason) has to adopt a very low common denominator for its technology (for example, no Jmol embedded in its pages). Wikipedia itself can be turned into a book, but currently these expressions are far from interactive (normally, they are just flat PDF). Perhaps the old book will furcate into many incarnations?

  5. Is it realistic to have the students be the content providers and editors all in one? I could image a textbook prepared by a professor that has 50% of the core content. Then the students would document their course work through they term/year, by taking notes, answering questions and using videos of their lab experiments or of lecture demonstrations. In other words, they would be responsible for filling out the other 50%.

    The questions asked during peer instruction could be electronically pasted into the student’s textbook.
    (http://molecularmodelingbasics.blogspot.com/2011/05/molecular-modeling-and-peer-instruction.html)

    As you and Jan Jensen have discussed modern formats for textbooks, I’ve thought about social media and its potential as a teaching tool. I don’t use Twitter, but since it has become popular, I’ve changed my research note-taking habits. I now micro-blog into my lab notebook, jotting down details I would have normally left out and later wished I hadn’t. Having students tweet each other, or themselves, to carry a conversation or just gain the skill and habit of documenting the science they study is the great potential of such a tool. I can image students sharing their digital textbooks, leaving room for comments and suggestions.

  6. Henry Rzepa says:

    Many aspects of teaching are becoming more symmetric (rather than write-once/read-many, we have write-many/read-many). We have had students contribute to formal course notes for a number of years, and even now there is an initiative at my institute to persuade students to actively initiate/consolidate Wikipedia pages for credit.

    As for Twitter, I am currently trying out an experiment in delivering course notes during a lecture in a split-screen, with the other component being a live Twitter mention (@Conf_analysis if you are interested), during which I have already had three really cogent questions posed live, so to speak, or after the lecture.

  7. […] on the topic of Wikipedia and iPads) and I have previously noted on this blog my thoughts about the future of (e)Books. A common theme of all this digital content is to maintain a balance between purely visual […]

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